Wednesday, March 20, 2013

After the Apocalypse--According to Marvel

As recorded in H.G. Wells excellent history book The War of the Worlds, the world was invaded by Martians around the turn of the 20th Century. The Martians, with their tripodal fighting machines, heat rays and poison gas, were pretty much curb-stomping the human race. But they succumbed to Earth bacteria and humanity was saved.

But they came back. In 2001, the Martians (now properly immunized) came back and crushed the human race. Humans are enslaved, with some people willingly serving their Martian overlords. Slaves are forced to fight as gladiators, while human scientists working for the aliens conduct hideous biological experiments.

As horrific futures go, this is a potentially effective one. It makes use of Wells' Martians--with their visual awesome fighting machines--and creates a situation that's fodder for a lot of good drama and action.

Marvel Comics brought the Martians back to Earth in Amazing Adventures #18 (May 1973). The main character is Killraven, a top gladiator in the Martian arena who escapes and becomes the leader of a small band of freedom fighters. He spent a total of 22 issues fighting aliens and traitorous humans. He popped up in an issue of Marvel Team-Up to fight beside a time-hopping Spider Man, and he had a few other appearances over the years, but he seems to have drifted away into obscurity.

But he didn't do half-bad while he was around. Take Amazing Adventures #20 (September 1973), for instance. Killraven and his right-hand man M'Shulla are embroiled in a fight amid the ruins of New York City against some of the many humans who now work for the Martians. When their energy pistols run dry, they take refuge in a museum that houses various weapons from throughout history. This allows them to use spears, crossbows, throwing stars and (at one point) a toppling statue to take out the humans.

It's a fun fight. Herb Trimpe is the artist and he (like so many artists from the 60s & 70s) knew how to choreograph a fight scene. The visuals are crisp and, despite the potentially confusing series of tactics used by Killraven and M'Shulla, we always know what's going on.

The action continues apace as the two freedom fighters are attacked by a Martian fighting machine, which they manage to destroy with a clever tactic. Later, using information Killraven gained while in the city, his band of men sneak into a Martian base at LaGuardia airport (misspelled "LaGuadia" in the dialogue). But:

and they're ambushed and captured by the Warlord, a thug who lost his original right arm in a fight with Killraven some years earlier.

It's very much an action-oriented tale, but writer Marv Wolfman uses that action along with dialogue to establish the characters. Some of the dialogue is overwrought, but it does effectively carry the story along and lets us know that Killraven is driven by anger and determination. Here's a guy who will not give up until the Martians are all dead.

I read this one as a boy (so--as with the Kamandi comics I talked about last week--my view of it is possibly colored by nostalgia), but back in those ancient times, we got our comic books off the rack at the 7-11. No specialty stores or pull lists to make sure you got every issue. So I missed the next issue and it wasn't until Ebay came into being decades later that I was finally able to acquire and read the conclusion.

Amazing Stories #21 begins with Killraven still struggling against his captors even as the Warlord has him strapped down to a table for a pleasant afternoon of torture. But a female biological scientist named Carmilla Frost (who had been making monsters for the Martians) and her sort-of ape creature Grok stage a rescue. She's doing this for (as yet unrevealed) reasons of her own, but the end result is Killraven, his men, Frost and Grok coming out of the Martian base into the ruins of Yankee Stadium. Here they fight some biologically-created monsters and the Warlord gets his comeuppance before the good guys escape.

The follow up was another good story. Once again, the fight scenes are very well-constructed. We see even more so than in the previous story that Killraven is too stubborn and angry to ever surrender even when the situation seems hopeless. And the monsters Trimpe designs are pretty cool. (Though one of them, a big crab with a human head, is arguably a little too silly looking to be as effective as it should be.)

But the future world of Killraven didn't have quite the longevity that Kamandi had, nor are there as many fond memories of him as there are for Kamandi. Beyond the fact that Kamandi was drawn by Jack Kirby, I think I may know the reason for that.

Kamandi pretty much just wandered his world, getting into a variety of individual adventures. And this was fine--it's something that worked for that particular character.

Killraven was leader of a band of freedom fighters, but the small victories they had throughout the Amazing Adventures run consisted of largely self-contained individual adventures and never really seemed to bring them any closer to overthrowing the Martians.

This, I think, was a mistake. The premise of Killraven pretty much demands an extended story arc. We needed to see Killraven's army slowly grow as he made real advances (and suffered real setbacks). We needed to see him grow as a character, learning to better control his anger to find the balance he needs to be an effective leader. The series needed to gradually and believably progress from stories of a small band of resistance members to tales of forming a full-fledged army which (perhaps) takes back small parts of Earth from the Martians. Perhaps Killraven's activities would allow humans in other part of the world to rise up, forcing him to become a politician and diplomat as well as a soldier. There was a lot of potential here, but the series and the character never really lived up to it.

It was a fun comic for what it was, but it really needed to be a little bit more.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this series too. It was written by Don McGregor who was good storyteller if a trifle heavy handed with dialogue.


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